Government Policy

How the ghost of tanneries still haunts Hazaribagh

One can still smell Hazaribagh before reaching there despite the relocation of tanneries to Savar in 2017.

Although the air quality of the area has somewhat improved, the stench of tanneries – garbage, cast-off leather scraps, and a toxic mix of acrid chemicals– remains.

The reason is that the place is still home to leather processing. The River Buriganga continues to be polluted by the waste of dozens of small rawhide processing units still operating in Hazaribagh illegally. Cast-off leather scrap still lines the canals.

Although tanneries have moved to Savar, some 20 kilometres to Hazaribagh’s west, many tanners are still dependent on Hazaribagh to perform part or all of leather processing – cutting, drying, and colouring.

Poor occupational health and safety conditions and hazardous child labour also prevail in the area, which once hosted 95 percent of the tanneries of Bangladesh. At the time, more than one international research organisation named it among the top 5 most polluted places on Earth.

Although the place is awaiting its makeover, many tanners are still dependent on the old tannery hub. Some are using their factories for preparing and cutting finished leather, which undergoes the first stage of tanning in Savar.

Tanning and making of leather involve the application of different chemicals and acids at different stages, most of which are harmful to the workers, environment and commoners.

Workers work here unprotected and repeatedly get exposed to hazardous chemicals and other forms of pollution. Many common health problems that they face include skin and respiratory diseases. They describe a range of health conditions including prematurely aged, discoloured, itchy, peeling, acid-burned, and rash-covered skin; fingers corroded to stumps; aches, dizziness, and nausea.

The tanneries rarely supply protective equipment such as gloves, masks, boots, and aprons. It is hard to imagine how people work here without making any complaints. Yet they return day after day to work for menial pay of Tk3,000 to Tk10,000 per month.

Around 70 percent of the tanneries’ total operating costs are spent on raw animal hides, 10 percent on chemicals, and the remaining 20 percent for salaries, utilities, and other expenses, according to an estimate.

Also, child labour is common in Hazaribagh. Here children and young boys can be seen operating stretching machines.

Bangladesh’s tanneries export leather and leather goods include leather-based garments, shoes, belts, bags, jackets, suitcases, and wallets. Major export destinations are the EU, the US, Australia, Japan, Singapore, and South Korea.

Fuelled by a growing international appetite for leather, the country’s leather industry has been developing on a large scale since the 1970s.

However, the industry has recently been facing a gradual drop in export earnings. Non-compliance at the Savar Leather Industries Park, where the central effluent treatment plant has proved inadequate to handle the amount of toxic liquid produced by the industry on a daily basis, is making the buyers pull away from placing work orders.

Source: United News of Bangladesh